What to Ask an Agent

I’ve received several questions lately about how to handle things when an agent calls (or multiple agents call) offering representation. How do you decide what to do?

It’s exciting to get The Call, but it also means you’re going to want to find out as much as possible about the agent before agreeing to representation. In fact, when you get the call, you may want to ask for some time to think about it, then gather your questions and get back to them.

There are a few things you should try to find out on your own before you start bombarding them with questions. Read the agent’s website. If they have a blog, spend some time browsing around it to get a feel for their personality and opinions. Know what genres they represent, and if they have a specialty. See if they list current clients and books they’ve sold. Try not to waste valuable phone time on questions you can get answered from the agent’s website or blog.

Here are some questions you might consider asking, but you probably won’t want to ask all of them. Choose what’s most important to you.

OPENERS
What are the terms of the representation being offered? Is there a time limit? Is it for one book, or is it open ended?
If you and the agent agree to work together, what will happen next? What’s the expected process?

LEGAL STUFF
Does the agent use a written author-agent agreement? (See this post.)
What happens if either the agent or the client wants to end the relationship?
If the agent/client relationship is terminated, what is the policy for any unsold rights in the works the agent has represented?

ABOUT THE AGENT
How long has the agent been an agent? How long have they been in publishing, and what other positions have they held?
What are the last few titles the agent has sold?
Does the agent belong to any professional organizations? Is the agent listed on Publishers Marketplace?
Does the agent handle film rights, foreign rights, audio rights? Is there a specialist at their agency who handles these rights?

AGENT PROCESS
How does the agent keep clients informed about their activities on client’s behalf?
Does the agent prefer phone or email, or are they okay with both?
How often does the agent want the client to check in?
What are the agent’s business hours?
Does the agent let you know where and when they submit your work?
Does the agent forward rejection letters to the client?
What happens when the agent is on vacation?
Does the agent consult with the client on all offers from publishers? Does the agent make any decisions on behalf of client?

MONEY
What is the agent’s percentage?
Does the author receive payments directly from the publisher, or do payments go through the agent first?
How long after the agent receives advances and royalties will they send them to you?
Does the agent charge for mailing? Copies? Faxes? Phone calls? Any other fees?

CAREER & EDITORIAL ISSUES
What publishers does the agent think would be appropriate for your book?
How close is your book to being ready for submission? Will there be a lot of editing and rewriting first?
Does the agent help with career planning?
Does the agent work with a publicist?
How does the agent feel about authors switching genres?
Will the agent edit and help you revise your work?
What if the agent doesn’t like your next book?

Please note, these questions are appropriate to ask ONLY if the agent has offered you representation. Don’t grill an agent with questions like this if you’re at a conference, for example.
Also, there aren’t necessarily “right” answers to all of these, because there are many legitimate ways for agents to do business. Your main goal is to be informed so you’re not surprised by something later.

Michael Hyatt (CEO of Thomas Nelson Publishers) has some great advice about questions to ask an agent, as well as ways to research an agent before hiring one. See his post “Before You Hire a Literary Agent.”

Rachelle Gardner, Christian literary agent, WordServe Literary Group, Colorado.

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  • Kathi Lipp

    >Great List –

    I think another valuable step is to ask around to see if any of your friends have had experience with the agent.
    What is their reputation in the industry?
    If you talk to one of their clients (past or present) do they feel that they have been dealt with fairly?
    If it's a newer agent, do they have other publishing experience that would be valuable to you as a client?

  • CFD Trade

    >I think the difficulty lies in the reality that when the author receives The Call (especially when it is the only one), there is no more room to think straight (after all the rejections, excitement,etc) ending up unfortunately with an agent whom the author may not actually want to work with in the long run. But only to realize it later. It is sad that some authors do not get to pick the agent they want. Let's face it, while the agent can be subjective on whom to represent, seldom will authors have the luxury. If I have the chance, I would certainly pick you, Rachelle.

  • Katie Ganshert

    >Or you could be like me and just stalk the agent online (and dream about them…yea, I know, creepy), so when agent does happen to call to offer representation, you can just ramble and SQUEE like an idiot and know without a doubt that of course you are going to accept the agent's offer, because the agent is, HELLO, Rachelle Gardner. ;)

    Despite my ramblings and my inability to ask many coherent questions, I'm quite happy with my decision.

    This is an uber helpful post. Now I must go get ready for my first day back to work (what is THAT about?)

  • Courtney (Women Living Well)

    >Great guidelines – thanks!!! VERY helpful. I had one agent call a little while back – I really was caught off guard as I'm a blogger and had no plans to write a book. It made me realize there could be more – hence the reason why I'm now following your blog (to learn more about all of this – I found you from Michael Hyatt's site)…but I did decline at the time…

    It was certainly a compliment to get the call and I definately had no idea what the right questions were to ask.

    My wheels are turning, could I actually write a book? I am a social butterfly – I never in a million years thought I would grow up to "write a book" – it's out of character…so I'm trying to wrap my mind around this concept…just so unsure…

    Maybe I need to call the agent back…who knows if they'd still want me?

    Thanks for the post.
    Courtney

  • Richard Albert

    >I think this one's going streight into my bookmarks – and a cross-link onto my blog. Great stuff!

  • Susan Bourgeois

    >Rachelle, I want to go off subject for a bit. Did I read correctly last week on Feedblitz, the Guide to Literary Agents Blog, that you're going to do an interview on August 12?

    I think many of the people who comment here would enjoy reading that upcoming interview.

    You seem to be popping up in several areas of the online literary world lately. In all of the articles I've happen to casually come across you are are spoken of very highly.

    That's nice to know because I am thoroughly enjoying your blog on a daily basis.

  • Rena

    >Thanks for the information. As someone who's looking for an agent, this post is very helpful and full of good questions to ask. Thanks, again.

  • Stephanie McGee

    >Bookmarking this one for the eventual day in which I jump into the querying ring. Thanks, Rachelle!

  • Krista Phillips

    >LOVE this! I know it's stupid, but I've always worried that when the time comes, I'd be just like Katie mentioned, be so excited that I just ramble and can't think of anything coherent to ask. I am going to write down the questions I like and tuck it away for later (hopefully sooner than later, ha!)

  • Heather Sunseri

    >Thanks for the great list, Rachelle.

  • Tom M Franklin

    >While I've read most of this in books about getting an agent, it's very refreshing to read it in a blog entry by an agent. This is one of the reasons, Rachelle, why your blog is so important to writers actively working towards publication (like me). We spend so much time on our craft that this type of real world business consideration can be quite intimidating. Having it presented by an agent (especially one we respect so much) makes a big difference.

    Thanks, Rachelle!

  • Anonymous

    >Seems most writers try to do agent research before they even query–that's why it takes so long. The problem is, almost all agents look good on paper and I'm sure they're very nice and charming in person, and tell you what you want to hear (they are salespeople, after all). It's only AFTER you sign with them that you find out what they're really like to work with.

    Several writer friends do complain about their agents–low advances, non-responsive, slow, etc–but they're stuck or too afraid to start over again. What if the agent says all the right things but ends up being a big disappointment? Then you have to go through the grueling process of querying agents once more…How to avoid this problem?

  • Anonymous

    >Some other questions I asked when my agent made the call:

    If we live in different time zones, can I contact you outside your normal business hours? [I live on the East Coast and she lives on the West Coast.]

    If I write in a genre you do not typically support, how will we handle those projects?

    Does the agency issue 1099s?

    How many agents are employed by the agency? [For instance, my agent has a partner; the partner will sometimes read my work for extra feedback. It's nice to have that option.]

    Eliza T

  • Sarah Forgrave

    >Very helpful list. Thanks!

  • Edwin

    >Im confused. Shouldn't I have researched most of these questions before I queried this agent?

  • T. Anne

    >This is a great list of things to run through when the time comes. Wish I had it years ago with my first agent. I’m sure it would have saved me much heartache. Although it is overwhelming just to have the honor of representation (better known as 'the call'), it makes all other issues feel like an aside at that moment. What a great idea to discuss things then sleep on them!

  • Sharla

    >Excellent list! I will definitely bookmark this for that wonderful day I will do the happy dance. LOL! Thanks for putting this together.

  • Sharla

    >Excellent list! I will definitely bookmark this for that wonderful day I will do the happy dance. LOL! Thanks for putting this together.

  • Jessica

    >This is wonderfully helpful, Rachelle! A lot of these are questions that wouldn't even occur to me. Thank you a hundred times!

  • Anonymous

    >I would ask 'I require split payments. Do you have an issue with that?'

    If an agent said 'yes' I'd run for the hills like Iron Maiden.

    Next I would ask, 'Do you copy every submission, rejection and offer to me along with all other communication regarding my work?'

    If the answer is 'no', I run again.

    Then – assuming I get that far, I ask – 'Do you like the Dallas Cowboys?'

    If the answer is yes, the agent name goes into a little black book and forwarded to a government organization so secret you can't be told about it….

  • Olwen Anderson

    >I've just found your site…. thank you for sharing your expertise with us!

  • Jena Carper

    >My question to you is how you go about becoming a literary agent? :) I graduate in a year with a Professional Writing/English LIterature degree from the University of Oklahoma, and you're doing exactly what I want to be doing post-graduation :)

  • Jena Carper

    >My question to you is how you go about becoming a literary agent? :) I graduate in a year with a Professional Writing/English LIterature degree from the University of Oklahoma, and you're doing exactly what I want to be doing post-graduation :)

  • R. D. Allen

    >Here's something I'm wondering: Once you have an agent, do you have to query them the same way for your next books as you did the first? Or is there a different process?

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      I am actually reading your site for some information, but as I was scanning your comments, I had to laugh at this one. This person left this exact same comment on my blog a few months ago! Word for word. Clearly, this person’s comment is not to be taken personally!

      My question for you is this: When you represent an author, do you represent the one novel presented to you or do you then assume the right to submit and take a cut of everything else that author writes? I chose an agent rather spontaneously…a former classmate. I made a mistake, and I’m trying to correct it as professionally as possible. He says I can no longer submit any articles or short stories on my own. They must all go through him. I think that is a stretch. Is that common?

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